Latest set of notes on my readings, the first in my life, of books of the New Testament, finishing yesterday the Gospel According to John. (I earlier skimmed the OT but have been reading the NT itself.) Sources of commentary are mostly Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The New Testament (1969) and the extensive annotations and footnotes to the New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Edition (2010), that I’m reading from. (I also have a King James Version I consult, for comparison, on occasion.)
These are initial impressions and reactions from this first reading, not necessarily any final conclusions about the book’s meaning or the Bible in general.
John is quite different from the three ‘synoptic’ gospels, primarily in its portrayal of Jesus as aware of his messiah-hood from the very beginning, and insistent about it to anyone who will listen. It’s as if Hollywood producers read the three earlier drafts [gospels] and sent them back with the admonition to make its central figure more aggressive and heroic, not so meek and cautious. In reality, we all understand, the four gospels were written over a period of some decades, and decades after the life of Jesus, and each writer had a different audience in mind and narrative points to make; John, the last of them, was writing for a broader audience beyond the community of believers, so his message and theme is that Jesus has come to save the entire world, not just those who first believed in him. (Thus does the motivation of the narrator affect the story told, the characterizations made, the purported events included or omitted.)
I understand that believers somehow rationalize the four (at times quite different) gospels as in some way all being simultaneously accurate and true, but I can’t quite imagine how that can be done without a good deal of motivated thinking and selective mental editing of contradictory passages.
Comments and reactions by chapter and verse:
1:1, John begins portentously with an introduction about “the Word” and how God, and Jesus, have existed since before the beginning of time. Asimov, p298, provides some insightful background about the Greek philosophers, beginning with Thales, and their gradual conception of ‘laws of nature’, regularities that can be understood, 299.6, and the subsequent emergence of the ‘Gnostics’, who identified God with wisdom and perfection but who was unknowable. Their explanation for the apparent imperfection of the world was that some other being, an evil Demiurge, created the world. John’s point in talking about the “Word” is to explicitly reject this idea of a separation between truth and wisdom and the creator of the world, insisting instead that God the creator and the world are one. John is also insistent that John the Baptist was in no way a precursor Messiah, nor was Elijah.
And, as already mentioned, John portrays Jesus, contrary to Mark and Matthew, as being recognized as the Messiah at once, by John the Baptist, and then repeatedly for a period of three years until his execution. Asimov notes, p306.5, “From the standpoint of realistic history, this view is quite impossible…”
1:35-49,Thoughout John, it strikes me that witnesses to Jesus’ presence are very easily convinced they have found their Messiah.
In general: There is no virgin birth in John. One might wonder why such an important detail would have been left out, unless perhaps (my speculation) it’s because myths of saviors who were born of virgins were pretty common in that era (see Pinker quote in this post), and this rather incredible yet commonplace part of Jesus’ story might have undermined John’s loftier goals. (Narrative)
3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (NRSV omits KJV’s “begotten”). This perhaps most famous passage in the bible is spoken by Jesus himself, something I’d never realized. So what does “gave” mean here? That Jesus knows his fate and the future is pre-written? I’m guessing that’s what is meant here, but it also seems a tad like a self-fulfilling prophecy, and throughout this book both John and his character Jesus are obsessed with fulfilling prophecy.
3:18 ff, If you don’t believe me you must be evil, Jesus says. And 3:36, you will be punished! A recurring theme in John and to a lesser extent in the earlier gospels is how Jesus explains things, often in parable, and the people hearing him do not understand. One wonders, per my comment at the end of this post, who might it have been who did witness these incidents and nevertheless *did* understand Jesus’ point well enough to pass the stories on to others, and eventually to the gospel writer.
4:18-42, Because Jesus can somehow tell that the Samaritan woman has had five husbands, she decides he’s the savior of the world.
5:16, The Jews (as John groups all of them) repeatedly condemn Jesus for performing miracles on the Sabbath. Are these not real miracles then, that they do not impress the Jews? Or is the writer here engaging in some easy storytelling by assigning the Jews to be black-hat villains?
Ch 6, the loaves and fish miracle– the one miracle repeated in all four gospels, remarkable in itself. My thought: if Jesus was attracting crowds where ever he went, why isn’t this a recurrent problem?
6:42, The Jews knew of Jesus’ parents and wondered how he could now claim to have come down from heaven. Good question. (Apparently they not heard about the virgin birth.)
6:51, Ritual cannibalism, retained to this day in the Catholic church.
7:40, More obsession with fulfilling prophecy… prophecies everyone involved were aware of. (It’s not as if Jesus were unwittingly fulfilling prophecies he knew nothing about.)
8:3, A woman has been “caught in adultery” and the crowd is about to stone her. What about the *man* caught in adultery? Isn’t he guilty too? (Apparently not, in this primitive patriarchal world.) Jesus cautions the crowd with the famous line about “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, a nice sentiment, but doesn’t this rather undermine the entire authority of the OT laws? Because everyone is a sinner, right? So how can anyone carry out any kind of punishment? Anyway, NRSV notes that this entire passage, 8:1-11, is missing from earliest sources and seems to be a later addition.
8:13, The Pharisees note that Jesus’ testimony is on his own behalf and therefore invalid. Yes, exactly, is my thought. Jesus replies with sophistry.
8:24, Believe or die, because I say so.
8:32, “The truth will make you free” but again, typically, the crowd does not understand.
9:2, Yet again, an illness or condition, in this case being blind, is equated with sin. This is medical understanding (or superstition) of the time.
9:25, “I was blind, now I see”. Is this the source of the “Amazing Grace” lyric?
9:31, “We know that God does not listen to sinners..” Isn’t everyone a sinner? Or was this concept a later development?
10:6, Yet again Jesus is misunderstood, but somehow his point survives to be written down by John.
10:27, Jesus’ followers are (mere) sheep, but they will have eternal life, for being unthinking followers.
Ch 11, All about Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead, the climactic miracle that triggers authorities to try and execute him. Isn’t it odd that this event is not mentioned in the earlier gospels?
11:6, Jesus *lets Lazarus die* so that he can subsequently show off “God’s glory”, 11:15; just as the earlier blind man was blind from birth so that Jesus could cure him.
11:38, Lazarus is put in a tomb, a cave blocked by a stone, just like the one Jesus will later be put in. How many of these caves are there?
11:48, Worries that if authorities don’t reign in Jesus, the Romans will come down on the Jews. It’s fortunate, or clever, how political motivations of the time mesh with God’s larger plan to sacrifice his son and save mankind.
12:28, God speaks from heaven. Why doesn’t He intervene directly like this more often? [A larger point, to be explored later: if an omniscient ‘God’ were really present and watching over mankind, why wouldn’t his interventions be strikingly obvious, not just in this ancient day, but to this day? –Later.]
12:38, The Jews don’t believe, despite all the supposed evidence, because prophecy!
Again in general: No last supper as described in the other gospels.
12:20 ff, Asimov, p325, identifies this event, as Greeks come to see Jesus and the Jews turn away, as the turning point in John’s narrative to indicate that the direction of Christianity is toward the Gentile and away from the Jew. (Narrative)
13:1, Jesus knows his hour has come. Or is he consciously fulfilling prophecy?
13:2, etc., The devil enters Judas and Judas is set up to betray Jesus — but when the time comes, 18:5, Jesus gives himself up! There is no betrayal.
14:2 “In my father’s house there are many mansions” in KJV becomes “…many dwelling places” in NRSV
14:9 Again, the disciples are a bit dim. This whole section is repetitious.
14:16, Jesus advises that “another Advocate” (NRSV) or “Comforter” (KJV) will come, and mentions this four times. Asimov, p326, offers some fascinating historical consequences: in AD 160 a Christian in Asia Minor named Montanus claimed to be the incarnation of this Comforter, a sort of new Messiah, and though rejected by Christian authorities of the time, gathered a cult of followers that lasted over 500 years.
15:18 ff, Odd that Jesus seems to welcome the world’s hatred. Oh wait– prophecy.
16:16, etc — Again, his followers don’t understand. 16:25 Jesus finally decides to speak plainly. Why wait so long to speak plainly of such very important matters?
18:10, The right ear. Only Luke claims Jesus then healed the ear. Odd how some little details like this, the right ear being cut off, get repeated in the gospels — but not major details, like the virgin birth or the raising of Lazarus.
18:38, “What is truth?” Indeed. (“Is mine the same as yours?”)
19:17, Jesus carries his own cross (unlike the other gospels)
19:35, John is repeatedly coy about who the witness is, who the beloved disciple is. Asimov, p328, points out that John is going out of his way to justify his claim that the blame for Jesus’ execution rests entirely on the Jews. Again in 19:36 John appeals to scripture, this time alluding to Exodus, to emphasize the new and great sacrifice — for all mankind — that Jesus undergoes.
Ch 20, The obvious observation about Jesus’ supposed resurrection is that the evidence provided is circumstantial, about a missing body, not any kind of eyewitness testimony of a visibly rising corpse — as we saw with Lazarus (11:44). The disciples don’t initially believe because “they did not understand scripture” (!),
20:9, Another appeal to prophecy. When the angels appear, only Mary Magdalene (whom a previous gospel implied had been cured of demons, by Jesus, and so was perhaps not entirely right in her mind) is there to witness them. Subsequently Jesus appears only to his disciples — and even they don’t immediately recognize him — and not to anyone not inclined (given they understand scripture!) to believe in his resurrection. All of this circumstantial and hearsay evidence would not get Jesus’ case very far in a court of law.
20:29, Better to believe without evidence, Jesus says.
Ch 21, Yet more details of post-execution appearances. As Asimov notes, “Apparently, the later the gospel, the more detailed the story of the resurrection”.
21:20, Again, why so coy abut the identity of the disciple?
All of this is fascinating, but to me only as the earliest and most elaborate example of how stories become legends and myths, how stories change as their tellers change their stories (for decades before they were written down) to suit their audiences and their own motivations, and how simplified versions of such stories take residence among people for cultural reasons, ‘believed’ without any close examination of their details.
I see the next book, Acts, follows from Luke and tells about the early disciples and how they spread and established the church — all before the gospels themselves were written down. One might conclude that the gospels were finally written as justification for what was until that point a social movement … and how historical contingencies played a large part into why that movement, and these stories, came to dominate subsequent millennia of human history.